(CNSNews.com) – Former President Trump took a shot at his successor Thursday over the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, saying that if he was still president the withdrawal of troops would have been “conditions-based.”
“I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable,” he said in a statement, referring to the jihadists’ rapid seizure of districts and provincial capitals across the country ahead of President Biden’s August 30 target date for the drawdown to be completed.
“It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that better than anyone,” Trump said. “What is going on now is not acceptable. It should have been done much better.”
Senior military officers and lawmakers have for years stressed the importance of the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan being tied to conditions on the ground.
“We would need to do it on conditions,” then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC) in March 2015. “In any military campaign we have to be conditions-based, absolutely, firmly.”
“We are now conditions-based, not time-based,” U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in November 2017. “We will be here until the job is done.”
NATO leaders had also long hammered home the same point with regard to allies and partners involved in the military mission.
That all changed on April 14, when President Biden announced that all troops would be out before September 11. In his remarks that day, he effectively rejected the “conditions-based” principle.
“If we instead pursue the approach where America – U.S. exit is tied to conditions on the ground, we have to have clear answers to the following questions: Just what conditions require to – be required to allow us to depart?” the president asked.
“By what means and how long would it take to achieve them, if they could be achieved at all? And at what additional cost in lives and treasure?”
“I'm not hearing any good answers to these questions,” Biden said. “And if you can’t answer them, in my view, we should not stay.”
A senior administration official in a background briefing that day was even clearer.
“This is not conditions-based,” the official said. “The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.”
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price suggested that the administration had no choice – that its hands were tied by the agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban in Doha in February 2020.
“Our withdrawal is not conditions-based, for the simple reason that it was preordained that a conditions-based withdrawal was essentially taken off the table,” he said.
“The [Doha] deal closed the door on a conditions-based withdrawal,” he said. “It’s a very important point. The U.S.-Taliban agreement stipulates a number of things. Among those things that it stipulates is that on May 1 of this year the United States was to withdraw its military forces.”
“This was an agreement that was concluded in early 2020, a year before this administration came in,” Price continued. “It’s a deal that we inherited.”
In fact, the U.S.-Taliban agreement did make the withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 1 contingent on the Taliban meeting certain obligations: It declared as “interconnected” and “interrelated” the timeline for the troop withdrawal on one hand, and on the other a Taliban commitment to “prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.”
The agreement did also call for a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” but to be negotiated and agreed upon in “intra-Afghan” talks. Those talks have yet to produce an agreement.
Blurring matters is the fact the administration kept classified some annexes to the agreement, only allowing members of Congress to view them.
Even so, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. Mark Milley, in SASC testimony shortly after the signing, lifted the lid on some of the Taliban’s undertakings about armed attacks.
“The Taliban have signed up to a whole series of conditions, of which – I believe the committee and the – all the Members of the Congress have all the documents associated with this agreement,” he said.
“You can go through all of it,” Milley continued. “And, of significance, there’s no attacks in 34 provincial capitals, there’s no attacks in Kabul, there’s no high-profile attacks, there’s no suicide bombers, there’s no vehicle-borne suicide, no attack against U.S. forces, no attack against coalition.”
Of those commitments, the Taliban has in recent weeks broken all but the last two.
When then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave his cautious endorsement of the freshly-signed Doha agreement, he made clear that he regarded it as conditions-based.
“I do not trust the Taliban,” McConnell said on the Senate floor two days after the signing. “So I’m grateful the lynchpin of the agreement is a conditions-based approach that will provide our commanders with leverage to test the will and the capacity of the Taliban to abide by the agreement.”
Fast forward 13 months, and Minority Leader McConnell was voicing deep concerns about Biden’s plan: “The president needs to explain to the American people why he thinks abandoning our partners and retreating in the face of the Taliban will make America safer.”
“No one wants a forever war, but I’ve consistently said any withdrawal must be conditions-based,” SASC ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.) said the same day.
‘Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions based’
Biden’s April announcement also left NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg scrambling. In keeping with the principle of “in together, out together,” the U.S. withdrawal over recent months has been accompanied by the departure of some 7,000 troops from NATO allies and partners.
Within hours of Biden’s announcement, Stoltenberg at a press briefing in Brussels had to backtrack on his own often-repeated insistence on a “conditions-based” withdrawal.
“You have been the number one proponent of a ‘conditions-based’ withdrawal,” a reporter noted. “President Biden came to the conclusion that this conditions-based approach would be ‘a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.’ What do you reply to him tonight?”
Stoltenberg in his response did not mention the word “conditions,” but he called the decision a “difficult” one, referring to the “dilemma” faced by the allies and the prospect of “a long-term, open-ended military presence.”
“No-one is saying this is easy, and no-one is saying this is risk-free,” he said. “But we just have to make a decision.”
Less than two months earlier, Stoltenberg told reporters, “The promise to leave Afghanistan is conditions-based. Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions based, and Taliban has to meet their commitments.”
U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks to topple the Taliban regime that harbored al-Qaeda.
Since October 2001, 2,448 U.S. military personnel have died in the mission, 1,913 of them in combat, according to the Pentagon.